Posttraumatic Stress Disorder
What is it?
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a medical/psychological condition that can occur in response to a traumatic event.
Traumatic events are usually defined as unexpected, negative situations that are life threatening, or where an individual experiences a threat to their physical or psychological integrity, or witnesses a similar threat to another.
Events that seriously threaten the safety of individuals, their family and friends can result in people experiencing extreme stress. Examples are motor vehicle accidents, assaults, being present during an armed robbery, workplace accidents, natural disasters, childhood sexual abuse, or combat during war. Other less severe but still stressful situations can provoke traumatic reactions in some people.
When we experience a threatening event, our bodies automatically respond in a way that allows us to protect ourselves or to escape the situation. This is called the fight or flight response. It involves an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, and breathing rate. During an extremely traumatic event this reaction will be very strong. Common reactions may include intense fear, horror, and helplessness, numbness and dissociation, anger and confusion, pounding heart, trembling or shaking, fast breathing, sweating and nausea. It is normal to have these kinds of responses. They may remain after the traumatic event has ceased and can take days or weeks to subside. Sometimes the symptoms of a stress reaction may last longer than days or weeks, depending on the severity and circumstances of the trauma and available follow-up support.
Generally, people who have been exposed to traumatic stressors are able to eventually go on with their lives without becoming preoccupied by what has happened. However, with the passage of time, some people are unable to integrate their traumatic experiences and start to develop specific patterns of avoidance and hyperarousal that are associated with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. It is important that anyone who develops symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress does not feel embarrassed, ashamed, or inadequate as a result of their feelings and responses.
There are three types of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder:
- Acute: symptoms last less than three months
- Chronic: symptoms last longer than three months
- Delayed: symptoms start at least six months after the actual event
A range of symptoms may be experienced as a result of being exposed to a traumatic event. These include the following:
- trembling, shaking
- diarrhoea or constipation
- fatigue, exhaustion
- excessive alertness and being easily startled
- anxiety and panic
- high sensitivity
- sadness and tearfulness
- avoidance and withdrawal
- numbness and detachment
- poor concentration
- poor attention and memory loss
- intrusive thoughts
- visual images of the event
- increased irritability
- social withdrawal and deliberate isolation from family, friends, workmates
- apathy and disinterest
- avoiding particular activities and places
- sudden routine and lifestyle changes
- alcohol, drug misuse
Looking after yourself
It is important that you deal with the feelings and reactions you are having so that they don't become overwhelming. There are a number of things that you can do to support yourself and assist your recovery after a stressful event.
Acknowledge that you have experienced a distressing event and that your reactions are a normal response to trauma. If you are unclear about what is happening to you, speak to a counsellor or trauma specialist who can provide you with support and information about your traumatic experience and reactions to it.
Ask for or accept the support of family and friends. Share your experience with those who are able and willing to listen.
Where possible, resume your normal routine, but do not force yourself to do things that feel beyond you. Avoid making any major decisions or life changes.
Remember that physical exercise, good diet and adequate rest will assist in your recovery. Take time to relax. Your mind, body and nervous system need time to readjust. Slow breathing, meditation, listening to music or any calming activity will help to reduce anxiety and physical symptoms.
Resist the urge to self medicate with alcohol/drugs. If you are having difficulty sleeping, talk to your GP or counsellor about medications for the short-term.
Allow time for your memories of the event and reactions to it to subside. Finally, stressful or traumatic events from the past can re-emerge when we have experienced a recent traumatic stressor. If this occurs you may need assistance from a counsellor or trauma specialist to help you clarify your experiences, past and current.
If you would like more information or would like to make an appointment, you can contact Diana by telephone or email.
See also: Clinical Supervision
Traumatic Stress, van der Kolk, McFarlane, Weisaeth, 1996
DSM-IV, Fourth Edition, 1994
APS Tip Sheet, Managing Traumatic Stress Symptoms and Stressful Events